5 Apocryphal People That Were Actually Real as Hell
There’s definitely people around, even in our current times, who are so deeply and wildly weird that without firsthand evidence, we might not believe they’re real. We also have the benefit of photography, which is arguably too available these days, to document every person and moment possible. That might be the only reason that decades or centuries from now, people will be able to look and go, “Oh my robot overlords, I guess they did exist.”
But when evidence exists predominantly in the form of campfire stories or old illustrations, it’s not surprising that certain figures from history have become caricatures. When somebody could feasibly fit into a Looney Tunes cartoon, it can be hard for them to maintain their grip as a genuine person from the past. Of course, embellishments are natural, but the basis for what you might think are tall tales are often a flesh-and-blood fellow.
Here are five people you might not have known really existed…
Johnny Appleseed is a tale that sounds patently insane. A man wandering the Wild West, tossing out apple seeds and leaving a trail of trees in his wake, sounds like a folk tale at best and a severely deranged man at worst. I truly can’t assign any blame for raised eyebrows when somebody tells you about a barefoot man traipsing about the frontier, wearing a tin hat that he cooked his meals out of. Starring in a Disney cartoon didn’t help either.
But Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman, was indeed a real person. Not only that, but a shocking amount of the details of his life were true, too. He did indeed wander the west, planting orchards from apple seeds that he carried in a bag hung off his shoulder. One detail that often gets left out does make him seem much more like a real American: He wasn’t doing this shit for free. He went ahead of settlers, planted orchards and then sold his shiny new apple trees to settlers coming up behind him. He wasn’t as much an earth-loving hippie as a deeply strange entrepreneur.
The tale of John Henry, the man who raced the steam machine, is a folklore story that has lost little relevance in modern times. Heck, John Henry versus the machine is practically writers’ struggle against advancing A.I. Well, if John Henry was a feeble, depressed man, and the steam machine made weird-looking, factually inaccurate railroads. Also, if I swung a sledgehammer one time, both of my arms would fly off.
Regardless, given the dramatization of the tale over time, most people don’t think that there was an actual strapping, overalled, dead dude behind the story. In reality, it’s now believed that the tale of John Henry, who beat the machine and keeled over posthaste (begging the question, who really won here?) is based on a rail-worker from Virginia named John William Henry. He was a convict who did work driving steel for the railroads, around the year 1870. Not only that, in the particular tunnel he worked, prisoners were pitted against steam drills, and records suggest he did die in the line of duty.
Maybe one of the most famous (literal) tall tales of North America is the mighty lumberjack Paul Bunyan. His likeness, or one like it, covers everything from pancake mix to romance novel covers. He also, obviously, is one of the most exaggerated representations of a real man. We’re not uncovering Olympic-pool sized footprints and ox turds out in the forests. Shrink the proportions and the rumors, though, and we can find a fella who’s likely connected to Bunyan.
Bunyan’s physical legend, it’s believed, comes from a French-Canadian man named Fabian Fournier. Remember, first, that in 1875, when Fournier lived, the average male height was right around five and a half feet tall. Given that knowledge, the six-foot-tall Fournier was practically Shaq with an axe. It’s thought that Fournier’s famous bulk combined with the name of another famous lumberjack, Bon Jean, which over time and error, morphed into Bunyan.
It’s also tough to be taken seriously when your most enduring legacy is a dumbass hat. The real Davy Crockett didn’t even have to be six feet under to have his image endlessly embellished by people of the time, either. Within his own lifetime, he was the basis of a play called Lion of the West and an unauthorized biography inspired by the interest in the former.
In reality, it’s not like the man wasn’t a genuinely tough sonuvabitch. He was a bear hunter and a soldier, and claimed to have killed 105 bears in a single year. Just going by the verifiable facts, he was a top-notch big-game hunter, a war hero and a politician who once subdued Andrew Jackson’s attempted assassin with his cane. Not much exaggeration was needed, but it was added all the same, especially by repeat offender, Disney, in a TV series about his life.
Okay, yes, obviously, Dracula, even as portrayed in the original book by Bram Stoker, is fictional. Nobody was feeding on blood and turning into clouds of mist or bats. He is, however, based on a real, notably horrible man. Vlad the Impaler, born Vlad III Tepes, was a ruler of Wallachia, which is now Romania. Funnily enough, in the world of Dracula media, these details are probably most prominently included in the Castlevania anime.
His father, Vlad II Tepes, was given the the name “Vlad Dracul,” Dracul meaning dragon. This made his son Vlad Dracula, meaning “son of the dragon.” He may have not had a literal taste for blood, but he definitely had a figurative one, known for his violence, most notably impaling his enemies. One gruesome detail that often goes untold: People assume this impaling was post-mortem. It was not. The victim would be mounted on a pole, and through gravity and their own weight, would slowly slide to their death.
Which honestly, makes a neck bite sound pretty humane.